Definitions related to social aspects of sexual violence

Expand your understanding that sexual violence is not just an individual issue. Learn more about the social and cultural aspects of sexual violence.


Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities. Accessibility can be viewed as the "ability to access" and benefit from some system or entity. The concept focuses on enabling access for people with disabilities, or special needs, or enabling access through the use of assistive technology; however, research and development in accessibility brings benefits to everyone. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act ( AODA) is a law that sets out a process for developing and enforcing accessibilitystandards. Implementing and enforcing these standards will help reach the goal of an accessible Ontario by 2025.

Age of consent for sexual activity is the age at which a person can legally consent to sexual activity. In Canada, children under 12 can never legally consent to sexual acts. Sixteen is the legal age of consent for sexual acts. There are variations on the age of consent for adolescents who are close in age between the ages of 12 and 16. Twelve and 13 year-olds can consent to have sex with other youth who are less than 2 years older than themselves. Youth who are 14 and 15 years old may consent to sexual involvement that is mutual with a person who is less than 5 years older. Youths 16 and 17 years old may legally consent to sexual acts with someone who is not in a position of trust or authority.

Ageism - discrimination based on age. 

Anti-Racism Anti-Oppression (ARAO) Used as an umbrella term that includes activities, practices, policies, ways of thinking, and initiatives that address oppression in all its forms (e.g. racism, homophobia, classism, ablism). Key to anti-oppression is an understanding that inequality and oppression exist in the world, and that all of us participate in unequal power dynamics in a variety of ways. Anti-oppression involves reflection and making choices about how to give, share, wield, or withhold power to assist and act in solidarity with people who are marginalized. Anti-oppression is sometimes used with the terms equity and accessibility: Anti-oppression is a broader term that includes a commitment to equity and accessibility. See both equity and accessibility. (OCASI offers 4 part webinar on ARAO)

Bystander is anyone who is neither a victim nor an offender, but who could potentially get involved in a situation to interrupt a sexual assault or harassing behaviour. Safety for everyone should always be considered.

Child pornography is quite different from pornography and is more rightly termed images of child sexual abuse. In Canada, there are laws related to taking and distributing sexual images of children or youth under the age of 18. This could include images:

  • that shows a person who is or is depicted as being under the age of eighteen years and is engaged in or is depicted as engaged in explicit sexual activity, or
  • the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person under the age of eighteen years;

You could be committing a criminal offence if you share pictures as described above.

Consent is the voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity of any kind. See Age of Consent.

Disclosure is telling someone about an event of sexual violence who is not the police or other judicial official. Telling police is reporting the event.

Discrimination is the practice of oppression against a group of people based on stereotypes. It means treating people differently in ways that is unfair and unjust because of their identity. Discrimination means that individuals and social groups do not have equal or equitable access to resources and opportunities to fully participate in society. The experience of discrimination causes harm that is also called trauma. 

Disproportionality is the underrepresentation or overrepresentation of a racial or ethnic group compared to its percentage in the total population.

Disparity is the unequal outcomes of one racial or ethnic group as compared to outcomes for another racial/ethnic group.

Domestic violence / intimate partner violence / dating violence describe abusive couple relationships where different forms of violence can occur. They include physical, emotional, financial and sexual violence. Sexual violence that happens in domestic violence situations often involves an expectation of sex and pressuring or forcing someone to perform sexual acts that they are not comfortable with or don’t want to do.

Entitlement is the sense that you have a right to have, do, or get something without having to earn it. For example, before the laws changed in the 20th century, husbands believed they were entitled to have non-consensual sex with their wives. Sexual assault in marriage only became a crime in Canada in 1983. When people feel entitled to certain rights or spaces, it’s hard for them to see the ways in which they support inequality and may be discriminating against others.

Equity and Equality are two strategies used to produce fairness. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. See: Image of the difference

Femininity is a set of attributes, behaviors and roles generally associated with girls and women. Femininity is both socially-defined and biologically-created. It is distinct from the definition of the female biological sex. Both females and males can exhibit feminine traits and behavior.

Feminism is the social critique of patriarchal values, beliefs, institutions and systems that hold women are inferior and of less value than men. Feminism is a movement towards an equal society for male, female and transgender people, without discrimination. Feminism holds that people should not feel discriminated against for being who they are. They should be able to live in peace, without fear of not conforming to the “social norm.”Feminism is not the belief that one gender should be raised in power above another. The very definition of feminism shows a complete opposition to this belief. Feminism gets a bad rap. See: Huff Post article by Hannah McAtamney - what is feminism

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a term that makes a causal link between gender and violence. For example, women and trans people experience sexual violence more often than men because of their gender. This form of violence is generally directed at women and girls. It reflects an attitude or prejudice at the individual or institutional level that aims to subordinate an individual or group on the basis of sex and/or gender identity.

Human trafficking is the movement and trade of humans, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labour and/or commercial sexual exploitation.

Intersectionality is defined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “multiple forms of discrimination occurring simultaneously.” An intersectional analysis recognizes that each individual will experience sexual violence differently based on compounding forms of discrimination, such as their gender identity, culture, race, language, disability, Deafness, religion, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and others. These intersecting identities make some groups more vulnerable to sexual violence.

LGBTQ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer / questioning. The letters can be used in any combination and are meant to show inclusion and diversity.

Masculinity is a set of attributes, behaviors and roles generally associated with boys and men. Masculinity is both socially-defined and biologically-created. It is distinct from the definition of the male biological sex. Both males and females can exhibit masculine traits and behavior. [wikipedia]

  • Hyper masculinity is the belief that in order to be a man you must in no way resemble a woman; being even remotely feminine strips you entirely of your masculinity.[Huffington Post article: Hyper-masculinity is a Plague on Modern Man.]
  • Toxic masculinity is built on two fundamental pillars: sexual conquest and violence - when men view these qualities as manly and virtuous the result is toxic masculinity.[Huffington Post article: More men should learn the difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity]

Misandry is the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against men or boys

Misogyny is the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women or girls

Oppression is based on the idea that some people are superior to others. Oppression occurs when a person or group uses their social advantages (that come from a belief in their superiority) to treat another person or group unfairly, based on stereotypes. For example, young people speak about their experience as crown wards and the stigma that comes from stereotypes of the child welfare system that label them as ‘bad’ kids from  ‘bad’ families. These are unfair beliefs that keep us from seeing the humanity of the person and the many reasons why people and families struggle.

Oppression operates on multiple levels:

  • Individual – attitudes and actions that reflect prejudice against a social group
  • Institutional – polices, laws, rules, norms and customs in organizations and social institutions that disadvantage some social groups and advantage others.
  • Societal / Cultural – social norms, roles, rituals, language, music and art that reflect and reinforce the belief that one social group is superior to another
  • Multiple Oppression occurs when people experience oppression and discrimination for multiple reasons:
  • Sexism is gender discrimination based on a person's sex or gender. Sexism can affect any gender, but most often describe prejudice affecting women and girls.  It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles, and may include the belief that one sex or gender is superior to another. Sexism takes the form of jokes or rude comments about women’s bodies, images of women’s body parts that are fetishized.  Sexism shows up in sexual harassment, sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence.
  • Genderism presumes there are only two sexes and genders and that one’s physical body determines gender – boys have penises, girls have vaginas.
  • Racism is prejudice based on a person’s race
  • Ableism is prejudice based on a person’s physical, intellectual, emotional abilities
  • Homophobia/bi-phobia is prejudice against lesbians, gays and bisexuals based on their sexual orientation
  • Transphobia is like homophobia but specific to trans people, including those who are gender independent or perceived to be so
  • Heterosexism is the set of beliefs and institutional practices that benefit heterosexuals over people of other sexual orientations. It is based on the assumption that it is ‘normal’
  • Ageism is prejudice based on a person’s age. Both youth and older adults experience forms of discrimination because of their age
  • Classism is prejudice based on whether your family is poor, middle-class or rich
  • Internalized Oppression is the "buying into" the elements of oppression by the target group. When target group members believe the stereotypes they are taught about themselves, they tend to act them out and thus perpetuate the stereotypes about them. This reinforces the prejudice and keeps the cycle going.

Patriarchy is a two class social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. In the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children.

Perpetrator and offender are legal terms for people who commit sexual violence.

Pornography is the presentation or representation of explicit sex for an audience. Images and acts of sexual violence are common in pornography.

Power and privilege: people have different amounts of power and privilege at different times, places and for different reasons, based on their social location. You have privilege if you have social advantages that you didn’t earn. Power can be used to protect privilege. People with less power and privilege experience higher rates of sexual violence. 

Power and control: abusive relationships often follow a pattern of actions that one person uses to control another. The same tactics of violence are used by very different people to maintain the power and control. Sexual violence is common in abusive relationships.  The first Power and Control Wheel was created by professionals working with abused women in Duluth Minnesota in 1984. Since then, the wheel has been adapted for different issues and groups.

Prejudice is a set of personal beliefs about a social group that prejudges them as being inferior and less deserving of rights and respect.

Prevention refers to efforts to stop the perpetration of unhealthy, harmful, dangerous and illegal behaviour acts, as well as victimization and re-victimization by others.

  • Primary prevention – approaches that are used before any sexual violence has occurred
  • Secondary prevention – focuses on preventing violence from continuing or escalating. Secondary prevention is successful when violence is avoided or stops: victims are no longer victimised (e.g. by leaving a violent relationship) or perpetrators have stopped being violent.
  • Tertiary Prevention – a long-term response after sexual violence perpetration to address to the lasting consequences of victimization and to minimize the possibility of re-offense

Rape is a term used to describe vaginal, oral or anal intercourse, without consent. Although no longer used in a legal sense in Canada, it is still commonly used and widely understood.

Rape culture is a culture in which dominant ideas, social practices, media images and social institutions implicitly or explicitly accept sexual assault by making them seem normal and by minimizing male sexual violence and blaming survivors for their own abuse. The beliefs and attitudes of a rape culture are rooted in the idea that women are inferior to men and are therefore less deserving of respect and dignity.

Rape myths: Rape myths complicate society’s understanding of sexual assault. These myths blame or shame the survivor of sexual assault, instead of holding the perpetrator responsible for his actions.

Risk is being exposed to injury or loss, a hazardous or dangerous situation. Understanding and preventing the escalation of different kinds of risk is an important part of prevention.

Safety planning: Safety plans typically contain a set of objectives and strategies identified by the victim to help promote ongoing safety and prevent future incidents (for example, how to build a network of supports and crisis contacts, what to do when a class is shared by the perpetrator, what to do about a residence that can be accessed by the perpetrator). These objectives and steps will typically relate to academic, housing, social and recreational life. The plan also includes actions the victim will take in the event of an immediate physical or emotional threat. Safety plans should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they are up-to-date.

Sexting is sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs or images, primarily between mobile phones.

Sex work describes the voluntary selling of sexual activities for cash or objects by individuals who are old enough to give consent and who are not being coerced or exploited.

Sex trafficking is the trade of a human beings as sexual slaves who are forced to perform sexual services for paying customers.

Social Location is a set of information that determines a person’s place in society. They are usually elements of a person’s identity that they have no control over. Many things determine social location such as gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability and class (to name a few).

Social justice is the fair and just relation between all individuals and society. It is measured by the distribution of wealth and equal opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. All people are equally valued in a socially just society. We have not yet achieved this as a species. 

Stereotype is a set of negative and unfair beliefs about a person that puts them at a disadvantage. Stereotypes presume that social groups of people are the same because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, class etc. It happens when you make up your mind about what a person or group of people is like based on their appearance or circumstance. Stereotypes create prejudice that leads to discrimination and make people more vulnerable to sexual violence.

Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. The message is that there is something ‘wrong’ with you. For example, people who experience depression experience stigma when told to ‘get over it’ as if depression is a choice.  We are a society that fears being seen by others as being ‘weak’ or ‘needy’ because of beliefs that tells us in so many ways – it’s your fault if you are anything less than perfect all the time. (which is ridiculous) Being a victim often carries a stigma of weakness.

Stigma can bring experiences and feelings of:

  • Shame
  • Blame
  • Hopelessness
  • Distress
  • Misrepresentation
  • Reluctance to seek or accept help

 - Child Welfare Stigma  youth advisors on this project talked about their experiences of being treated differently at school and in the community because of the stereotype of being involved with the child protection system. This stereotype carries the stigma that because you are in care, it automatically means you are a ‘bad’ kid from a ‘bad’ family. The child welfare stigma creates a disadvantage youth in care have to overcome every day.

Structural violence refers to systematic ways in which social structures harm or otherwise disadvantage individuals. The gender wage gap is one example of how the system is set up to privilege some and disadvantage others. Structural violence is subtle, often invisible, and with no one specific person who can (or will) be held responsible (in contrast to individual behaviour). In an organization, filling out forms, waiting for appointments and being put on hold are examples of practices that can be dehumanizing and re-traumatizing for clients. These are examples of how structural violence can occur. Even well-meaning professionals participate in structural violence when they routinely follow policy and fail to see or respond to the real needs of the person they are working with.[See structural violence]

This is a video about the structural violence in the education system.

Survivor describes a person who experiences sexual violence or harassment   People who experience sexual violence or abuse can be to as “survivor’s” “victims” or “targets”. Few people want to be labelled as a victim in our society. There are negative attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence that blame the victim as being weak or at fault. This is called stigma. One of the reasons we need to talk about sexual violence is to challenge stigma because it is wrong. It is never the fault of the person who experiences the violence.

Trauma is the result of an event that feels overwhelming. Trauma can follow powerful one-time incidents like rape or sexual assault. It can also happen when there is chronic or repeat experience such as ongoing childhood sexual abuse. Seeing another person being hurt can cause trauma too. Trauma can take many forms like PTSD, dissociation, flashbacks and body memories.  

A Trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.[Read more about triggers here]

Violence against women (VAW) is a term that includes any act or threat by men or male dominated institutions that inflict physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm on a woman or girl because of her gender. In most cultures, traditional beliefs, norms and social institutions legitimize and therefore perpetuate violence against women. Violence against women has been called a global epidemic by the World Health Organization and the most pervasive human rights abuse in the world.

Victim blaming follows from the myths of sexual violence that place the blame on the victim for causing the assault or harassment because of how they dress or act. It is never the fault of the victim. People who perpetrate sexual violence are wholly responsible for their actions.

Vulnerability refers to the difficulty people have to protect themselves from negative impacts from threats of any kind. These impacts are due in part to characteristics inherent in social interactions, institutions, and systems of cultural value.






Further Reading & Resources